Mapping marine economics (1): A planet walks into a doctor’s office

Somewhere in the near future the wise men and women in Wageningen University’s tenure track Advisory Committee will decide whether I’m doing a good enough job to keep it. One of the things they may possibly ask is what my research will focus on in the coming, say, 15 years. So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about questions like “what on Earth am I doing?” and “where the Hell am I going?”

If you go to the doctor with a problem, the doctor will generally do four things. First, he will assess the seriousness of your problem. Second, he will try to identify the cause of your problem. Third, he will decide on the objective to be pursued by any therapy he may prescribe. Fourth, he will prescribe a therapy, which may be a pill, an operation, or something else. Economics of coastal and marine ecosystems is not much different:

  1. Economists assess how well or how badly coastal and marine ecosystems are doing, and how important they are to us. Should we worry about, say, disappearing mangrove forests? Who should be worried? (Ecologists hate these questions, but somebody has to ask them.) To answer these questions, economists try to put a price on ecosystem services, develop environmental indicators, or correct GDP for environmental degradation.
  2. Economists also investigate the fundamental reasons why we deplete, pollute, or overexploit ecosystems. If we all know how important fishery resources are to us, why are some stocks so terribly overfished? So economists develop theories of open access resources, of enforcement problems, corruption, and other forms of market failure or government failure.
  3. A lot of economic research is done to set the right policy objectives. How do we trade off the profits of a large-scale distant-water fishery against the interests of small-scale local fishers in a developing country? How do we trade off our own welfare against that of future generations? So economists have developed many applied optimisation models, and concepts such as Maximum Economic Yield.
  4. Lastly, economists also investigate how we can attain our policy objectives. Should we introduce restrictions on days-at-sea or Individual Transferable Quota to keep catches at an efficient level? Should we freely distribute fish quota, or auction them off? If we pay land owners not to cut a mangrove forest, will it really save that forest or will they simply cut another forest?

In future posts I’ll share my thoughts on each of these four issues.

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